Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

bury your dead

I read a lot of mysteries. It’s not that I am bloodthirsty, but rather that I love the puzzle of the plot and the psychological depth of the characters. Plus a lot of the best novel writing today is being done in mysteries. I especially like finding a good series. When the same handful of characters return in book after book, the author has the opportunity to dig ever more deeply into them, revealing so much more of them over time, allowing them to change in unexpected ways.

Not every author takes advantage of that opportunity, of course. I’m pleased to say that Louise Penny does.

I enjoyed Penny’s first book, Still Life, featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec. However, the real star of that book is the small village of Three Pines, a peaceful place near the Vermont border, not shown on any map, full of artists and eccentrics.

Although wary of the Murder She Wrote pitfall, where way too many murders must happen in small town to keep the detective busy, I thought the book promising enough to read on. I blogged about her second and third books, chronicling my increasing disappointment with the flat characters. Great suspense, wonderful plots, but the characters were too simplistic—all good or all bad—and unchanging.

Then a friend encouraged me to try some of the more recent books. I’m thrilled to report that my friend was right. The later books have the psychological shading that I crave. The core characters are each given a chance to step into the spotlight and reveal their dark corners, their secrets and dreams.

This book in particular, Bury Your Dead, is a masterpiece. Penny takes on the incredible challenge of weaving together three stories and succeeds in playing them off against each other and bringing each to a satisfactory conclusion.

Gamache is visiting Quebec City during the Winter Carnival, recovering physically and emotionally from a recent investigation. Each day he visits the quiet, almost deserted Literary and Historical Society, a bastion of Quebec City’s English-speaking residents, where he examines the dusty tomes pursuing a theory he has about the 1759 Battle of Quebec. However, when a body is found in the basement, a murder that could reignite the fury of Francophone Quebec, he is pulled into the investigation.

At the same time, he is receiving daily letters from one of his friends back in Three Pines, begging him to reopen the case solved in the previous book, The Brutal Telling. And finally, there is the recent investigation, the one that went so wrong. I confess it was this third story that kept me up all night finishing the book. The events took place in the gap between the two books, and I was desperate to find out what had happened.

Even better than this masterful intertwining of three plots are the subtleties of characterisation. Gamache and his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, reveal unexpected sides of themselves. This is most effectively done through their interactions with others. We see Gamache not only with his team and the suspects, but also with his own mentor, Émile Comeau. We see Jean-Guy take on the inhabitants of Three Pines without Gamache to run interference.

Altogether, a most satisfying read and one I highly recommend. While it is generally best to read a series in order, I give you permission to jump around a bit. But don’t skip over this book.

Is there a mystery series that you particularly like?

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield

9 Gates

I’ve been trying to make a dent in the stack of writing craft books that threaten to overwhelm my bookshelves despite all my resolutions not to acquire any more of them. However, this week I’ve gone back to reread this lovely book by Jane Hirschfield. The nine essays contain so much depth and beauty that I’m sure I’ll be back to savor them many more times.

Hirschfield explores the magic of poetry, pulling back the curtain to show what makes some poems work. Her insights leave space for the imagination, equally inspiring for poetry readers and those who write.

In the first essay, “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration”, she looks at concentration as the starting point of a good poem, calling it “a particular state of awareness”. She goes deeper and deeper into that concept, looking at how we invite concentration, the paths we follow, what we find. “In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere.” She speaks of the role of difficulty, the way resistance and tension shape the work, and goes on to examine six essential forms of concentration: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Using poems by Yeats, Olds, Cavafy, and others, Hirshfield seduces our understanding.

Since trying my hand at translation, I was fascinated by “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation”. Lauding the curiosity and open heart that makes us “desire to learn what lives within the incomprehensible speech of others”, Hirshfield looks at the central issue: “where does a poem’s true being reside?” I initially wanted to keep my translations as close to the literal meaning of the original as possible rather than writing my own poem inspired by it. However, I found my poetic sensibility taking over and leading me irresistibly to a middle ground. Her care in this essay to show the spectrum and journey of translation reminds me of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.

My favorite essay is “The Myriad Leaves of Words”. I’m grateful to Hirshfield for sharing her insights into Japanese poetry, especially the way she draws out the cultural differences and their effects. I keep coming back to some of the Japanese concepts she describes, like shin which “includes both the realms of the mind and that of the feeling heart”, and some of the techniques, such as the kakekotoba, or pivot word, one that carries two meanings. Lately I’ve been working a lot with haiku and tanka. I appreciate learning the Japanese words for some of the concepts, such as kigo for the season-indicating word and mujō for transience.

Most of all, though, Hirshfield has helped my understand the source of my obsession with these forms and why they–and poetry in general–occupy a central space in my life.

What book have you read that has made you enthusiastic about reading poetry?

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris


I was doubtful when one of the owners of my local indie bookstore urged this book on me. However, she’d never steered me wrong before, so I succumbed. It’s a fictional retelling of the Dreyfus affair, a shameful chapter in France’s history and one which I thought I knew a lot about. Ha! After reading this absorbing book I realise that I only knew the barest outline of the story.

In December 1894 Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of selling French military secrets to Germany. The Army had learned that they had a traitor in their ranks and quickly settled on Dreyfus, an officer in the French army of Jewish descent, as the guilty party. Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island off the coast of Africa, where he was the only prisoner and held under appalling conditions for five years.

While the Dreyfus affair is generally considered a blatant example of anti-Semitism, there’s more to the story. This fascinating novel details the missteps and resulting coverups and persecutions. It introduces us to our narrator, Georges Picquart, a career Army man who is unexpectedly named the head of counter-espionage one year after Dreyfus’s conviction. Initially convinced of the man’s guilt, Picquart gradually becomes persuaded by the weight of evidence that the real traitor is someone else. Shocked by the obviously fabricated evidence, he realises that if he doesn’t back down, his career and even his life may be in danger.

The author introduces us to a large cast of characters, but each is so vividly drawn that that I didn’t have to refer to the Dramatis Personae in the front of the book. And the suspense generated is so powerful that—despite knowing the historical outcome—I couldn’t bear to stop reading.

Picquart’s dilemma, weighing his personal sense of honour against the heavy chains of conformity, couldn’t be more apt. How many people today would have the integrity to stand up to their superiors? It’s so easy to be a yes-man. How many dirty tricks have we seen come to light in the halls of power, and how many more are there that we never see?

The people in this story are all too human. They are not monsters, though many do monstrous things. Robert Harris has done the hard work of delving deeply into each one and excavating his or her motives. I can’t remember where I first heard this piece of wisdom for aspiring writers, probably from David Corbett: Even the villain thinks that he is the hero of his story. Learning why these people behave as they do makes this story spectacular and human and deeply moving.

Like my bookstore owner, I will be urging this book on everyone I know.

What novel have you read that helped you understand a historical event?

Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith


Sometimes you want a big, fat novel; sometimes you want a small, quiet one. Only 112 short pages, Smith’s novel follows a young woman during a single day. Twenty-something Isabel is many things: a thrift-store aficionado, a librarian who repairs damaged books, a child of divorced parents, a resident of Portland, Oregon. But most of all she is a person whose imagination is both deep and wide.

She collects postcards of cities around the world. Having grown up in an isolated cabin in Alaska, she is fascinated by cities. The one which has most captured her fancy is of Amsterdam. Unlike the others,that postcard actually carries a message, was actually delivered. She turns over the thought of the sender and recipient, rolling it about in her mind, considering possibilities under the golden gingko trees.

She also has a tin of photos that she has collected over the years from second-hand shops, inventing stories for the people in them until “the people in the photographs came to mean as much to her as her own relatives.”

Smith’s lovely prose encouraged me to slow down and savor each page. She lightly turns over the cards for Isabel, carrying the same gentle mood through the day as Isabel visits a thrift store to buy a dress for a party that night and navigates the office where, in the mornings, she joins Spoke, a slightly older co-worker in the kitchen, where they drink their hot beverages—Earl Grey for her, black coffee in a mason jar for him—in silence. “It is as close as she has been to waking up with him.”

The small happenings of the day send her thoughts back to the past, including Alaska, her parents’ divorce, and her longtime friend Leo whom she calls Loon.

Each short chapter reads like an essay, a richly colored bit of glass to fit into the picture. Like a poem, this story condenses the enormity of Isabel’s day—encompassing not just the present, but the influences of the past and the dreams of the future—and presents them as a series of images and actions and symbols that collectively take us deep into her world.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. I picked it up on a recommendation from http://offtheshelf.com. I’d probably never have chosen it in a bookstore because the unattractive cover does not convey the most important qualities of the story inside.

What novel have you liked in spite of the cover?

Translations from the Night, by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo


English translations by John Reed and Clive Wake

I love to talk with people about books, so I’ve joined several book clubs over the years. One has a peculiar modus operandi: we don’t read the same book; instead we each talk about a book we’ve read that month. We have a monthly theme, but don’t always stick to it. For this month, we spun a globe to see where our finger landed. Then we read a book either set there or by a local author.

I got Madagascar.

I make a point of reading authors from other countries, but Madagascar? I couldn’t think of an author or book related to that country. In fact, I knew almost nothing about Madagascar except that it is an island off the east coast of Africa that was once part of France’s colonial empire.

Some research led me to the surprising information that the country includes several other islands and that it is over 2.5 times as large as Great Britain, but with 2.5 times less population, most of whom live on less than $2 a day. Madagascar didn’t become a colony until 1897 and gained independence in 1960, so its colonial period was brief. However, that was long enough to poison the life of its most famous writer and Africa’s first modern poet, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo.

Born in 1901 (though Wikipedia also lists 1903 as a possibility), Rabearivelo was deeply influenced by European fin de siécle writers. Unfortunately, the influence extended beyond his poetry to his lifestyle, leading him to adopt alcohol, opium, gambling and promiscuity as elements of a poet’s life. He played a leading role in the literary life of the capital and became friends with French poet Pierre Camo and Robert Boudry, later Governor-General of the colony. Rabearivelo published several collections of his poetry, writing first in Malagasy and then in French.

Here is an early poem:


Make no sound, do not speak:
off to explore a forest, eyes, heart,
mind, dreams . . .

Secret forest; yet you can touch this forest
with your hands.

Forest astir with stillness,
forest where the bird is gone, the bird to catch,
catch in a trap and make him sing
or make him cry.

Make him sing or make him cry
and tell the place where he was hatched.

Forest. Bird.
Secret forest, bird hidden
in your hands.

He was particularly drawn to the liminal times of dawn and dusk, as shown in this excerpt from my favorite poem in the collection.

Tall Timber

. . .
But suddenly it came to me when last I slept
that the old canoe of fables
was still moored with creepers of night.
Every day it carried my childhood
from the shores of the evening to the shores of the morning,
from the headland of the moon to the headland of the sun.
. . .

I love the images in that poem such as searching for “the nest where the winds are hatched” and memories “like pebbles thrown on the sand / and picked up by an old sailor”.

Near the end of his life he experimented with hain-teny, a form of Malagasy folk poetry that uses proverbs to build a dialogue. Curiously, these enigmatic poems were used to conduct arguments, though it is unclear to me how reciting poetry could settle a dispute. Here is a short one he wrote:

There in the north stand two stones and they are somewhat alike: one is black and the other is white. If I pick up the white one, the black one shames me. If I pick up the black one, the white one shames me. If I pick them both up, one is love, the other consolation.

Despite his literary success and active correspondence with European writers, Rabearivelo felt isolated in his “colonial prison” and killed himself in 1937. He left a rather melodramatic suicide note comparing himself to poets Léon Deubel, Charles Guérin, and Arthur Rimbaud. In one of his later poems he speaks of a young poet of the future who will “come to know your books” and who “will raise his head / and think that in the sky / among the stars and winds / your tomb is built.”

I loved many of the poems in this collection. It seems sad to me that with all his literary success, he was overwhelmed with frustration and despair. I cannot believe that Europe could have offered him much more than what he already had.

What do you know of the country of Madagascar? Have you ever been there?